Restaurant Used Federal Agent to Harass Rival, Lawsuit Claims

An ICE agent who’s already pleaded guilty to taking bribes allegedly drove a Korean supper club out of business in exchange for free food and drinks from a rival joint.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

A Las Vegas restaurant allegedly bribed a crooked federal agent to raid their rival restaurant, the alleged victims claim.

Club Yamang and Club Sonagi were two Korean supper clubs, which offered food and music, often accompanied by attractive hostesses. But the restaurants’ competition turned ugly in 2013, when Club Yamang allegedly began receiving frequent visits from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Joohoon David Lee. Club Yamang’s former owners claim in a Jan. 14 lawsuit against the government that Lee targeted them for sex trafficking investigations, raided their restaurant, and entered misinformation on them in an ICE database—all in exchange for free food and drink at Club Sonagi, where Lee was friends with the owner.

At Club Sonagi, Lee would spend long nights drinking high-end whisky and “routinely generated bills between $1,000.00 to $2,500.00 an evening,” the lawsuit alleges.

But Club Yamang’s owners claim Lee never had to pay the exorbitant bar tab. Instead, they allege, Lee agreed to wage war on Club Sonagi’s rivals in exchange for unlimited free food and booze.

“It was commonly understood by employees of Club Sonagi that SA [Special Agent] Lee was never to be presented with a bill and/or required to pay any money. All of his food and drinks were to be ‘comped,’” the suit, which names the United States as its only defendant, alleges. “While drunk one evening at Club Sonagi in approximately June 2013, SA Lee boasted to some of the club’s waitresses that he was going to ‘raid’ Club Yamang in a few weeks.”

Club Sonagi’s former owner could not be reached for comment. Lee’s former attorney did not return a request for comment and Lee, currently doing time for an unrelated bribery case, was unavailable.

The former ICE agent previously admitted to accepting bribes in December 2015, when he pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in cash from a Korean businessman accused of trafficking a woman into the U.S. as a “sex slave” without her consent. Lee was sentenced to 10 months in prison in July 2016.

An ICE spokesperson declined to comment on the new allegations against Lee, but told The Daily Beast that the agency “has zero tolerance for public officials who abuse their authority and violate the public’s trust to feed their own greed. Guarding against illegal or unethical behavior is not an option; it’s an obligation we have to the people we serve.”

Just as Lee had allegedly promised, Homeland Security Investigations led a raid of Club Yamang on July 11, 2013 under Lee’s direction, the restaurant’s former owners said.

“The raid was not supported by legitimate reasons,” the suit claims. “Instead it was based almost entirely upon SA Lee’s representations and appeal to crass racial/ethnic stereotypes of Asian clubs as dens of prostitution and human trafficking which SA Lee believed other government officials would be susceptible to believing.”

Paul Padda, an attorney for the former Club Yamang owners, thinks Lee invoked stereotypes of Asian sex work, without properly explaining the concept of a Korean supper club to other law enforcement officials.

“These types of lounges are not only common in Asia but exist right here in the United States in most major cities,” Padda told The Daily Beast. “Frankly, they’re not much different than the lounges you’ll find in the major hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. What I believe the evidence will show in this case is that ICE Agent Lee attempted to paint the worst possible picture of my client’s establishment by playing upon stereotypes.”

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During the raid, the restaurant’s female employees were allegedly detained, and questioned on their immigration status and whether they were sex workers. One of the detainees was Aeja Kim, the then-fiancée of Club Yamang owner Thomas Kim. During the raid, Aeja was taken to an ICE detention center where Lee “subjected her to an intense interrogation and placed a Global Positioning System (‘GPS’) device on her ankle,” the suit alleges.

During the hours-long interrogation, Thomas did not know where his fiancée had been taken. When Aeja finally returned, the couple was allegedly informed that Aeja’s ankle monitor would remain on indefinitely, despite the apparent lack of a court order for the device. When Padda met with Lee four months later to discuss removing the monitor, Lee freely admitted that the device was being used to “build” a criminal case against Aeja, the complaint reads.

“My client Aeja Kim had to wear an ankle monitor for almost six months,” Padda told The Daily Beast, adding that, after another ICE agent took an independent look into Aeja’s case, the monitor was removed the same day. “It was outrageous.”

But even without ankle monitors, the owners of Club Yamang and their families claimed they felt stalked. Lee would allegedly park his official ICE vehicle outside the restaurant, scaring away customers, and giving employees the impression of constant surveillance, they allege. In December, Lee and an investigator with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office allegedly visited the apartment of a female Club Yamang employee and interrogated her on her immigration status within earshot of her neighbors, questioning her on whether she used drugs or was engaged in sex work.

“Lee showed the employee several photographs of [the Club Yamang owners] and notified her that they would all be going to jail soon,” the suit alleges. “He further queried whether she wanted to end up in the same position.”

Two of the owners, a married couple, ran into other issues with ICE that same month. The couple, whom Padda said made trips to South Korea, found themselves interrogated every time they tried to board a plane.

“My client Mi Won Kim and her husband were being flagged for inspection at the airport and getting picked for interrogation by Homeland Security,” Padda said. “On some occasions the questioning would last for two hours. They felt very humiliated every time they were stopped and questioned at length as if they were criminals.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that Lee deliberately entered “misinformation” about the couple into the ICE database, so as to flag them as a flight risk. It wouldn’t be the first time Lee was accused of tampering with ICE databases for bribes.

In December 2015, he pleaded guilty to one count of accepting a bribe, after he accepted $9,000 to $10,000 in cash, plus an all-expenses-paid trip to Seoul from an unnamed South Korean businessman accused of sex trafficking. In 2012, Lee conducted an interview with a woman who accused the businessman of trafficking her into the U.S. as a “sex slave,” ICE announced in a statement, on his plea. He later issued the same businessman a favorable ICE report, after the unnamed man paid him up to $10,000 in cash, and funded his trip to Korea.

But while Lee gave the alleged sex-trafficker the all-clear, his efforts at Club Yamang drove the restaurant out of business, its former owners said. With customers and employees retreating from the restaurant and its constant government surveillance, the supper club was forced to close its doors. All five plaintiffs in the case are seeking at least $100,000 in damages, for what they describe as “extreme emotional distress.”